Tuesday, November 24, 2015

It’s in our hands, not somebody else’s

The writer and the wife were in a cafe in Saint-Germain-des-Prés 5 days after the gruesome attack in Paris. With friends from the Philippines they had toured France by car, covering 3774 kilometers. They were in Lyon when the carnage occurred. And as the writer shared, the experience was not exactly new. He was in Bangkok as a coup unfolded; stranded in Cairo on 9/11; on a flight from Singapore to Manila that had to turn back because of People Power, and stranded in Singapore until MIA reopened.

Yet to him – a “road warrior” the last 3 decades – the world is a better place. Folks who could speak to the World Wars and the Soviet rule vividly narrated to him their horrors otherwise read in history books. And he has friends and acquaintances that are delighted about their experience in the free world, warts and all.

He marvels to have witnessed the reality of ex-communist facilities from airports to factories to offices to apartment buildings, among others. And how decrepit they were. Yet as he traveled around the region he would be in awe to see how much could be done in a relatively short period of 13 years. Of course to the locals progress would never be enough except to those that have learned to adapt and thrive in the new order and have the requisite skill-set and thus amply rewarded. While autocrats would sadly still be around – despite the collapse of communist rule – as well as the abhorrent practices of corruption and poor governance.

“CHANGING prime ministers in Romania is nothing special. Changing them on grounds of corruption or incompetence is unprecedented. Changing the whole dysfunctional political system is still a daunting and distant prospect. But . . . Romanians are beginning to feel a breath of optimism, after 25 years of fitful progress in building institutions and entrenching the rule of law.” [Collective responsibility, The Economist, 14th Nov 2015]

In eastern Germany despite the sense of a gap between their standard of living and their western counterparts to this day, majority would not want to imagine turning back the hands of time. While the Chinese are today among the most traveled people, once the exclusive bragging rights of Americans. And Asia has minted more millionaires than North America beyond drastically reducing poverty.

Whether it's about the impact of freedom and democracy or wealth generation, people see the world a better place despite the recognition that man wasn't meant to be perfect. Which can be manifested in conflicts perpetuated in the name of his religion or his God, if not lust for power.

Not surprisingly the world had to invent hegemony though during the time of the Nazis, the Germans were a big and influential ethnic group in America. And in more ways than one they had an impact on US leadership, torn if they had to be involved in the conflict in Europe despite appeals from European leaders. 

Fast forward to the present. Even with NATO and the EU, European countries still expect the US to be the hegemon since no one is prepared to step up military spending. [The US defense budget is over $600B while its budget deficit is $475B. Simplistically, they can raise social services and truly be the land of milk and honey, and yet the US can’t be an island unto itself. They raise $358B in charitable contributions although provide a mere $34B in foreign aid.]

EU countries would rather invest to boost their economies. The lesson from the fall of the Soviet empire (that geared for war?) is not lost to them? And as Clinton once put it, it's the economy . . . stupid! That said . . . “Humans . . . are meaning-seeking animals. We live . . . in a century that has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning. The secular substitutes for religion — nationalism, racism and political ideology — have all led to disaster. So many flock to religion, sometimes — especially within Islam — to extremist forms.”[Finding Peace Within the Holy Texts, David Brooks, The New York Times, 17th Nov 2015]

This is already leading to religious violence. In November 2014, just to take one month, there were 664 jihadist attacks in 14 countries, killing a total of 5,042 people. Since 1984, an estimated 1.5 million Christians have been killed by Islamist militias in Sudan . . . [I]t is not religion itself that causes violence. In their book Encyclopedia of Wars, Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod surveyed 1,800 conflicts and found that less than 10 percent had any religious component at all.”

And compare them to WWI & II: “Casualties, WWI: Estimated to be 10 million military dead, 7 million civilian deaths, 21 million wounded, and 7.7 million missing or imprisoned. WWII: Over 60 million people died in World War II. Estimated deaths range from 50-80 million. 38 to 55 million civilians were killed, including 13 to 20 million from war-related disease and famine. [http://www.diffen.com/difference/World_War_I_vs_World_War_II]

More recent history would suggest the US has been gun-shy despite hegemony. And bad leaders of affected nations would have freer hands to perpetuate evil. Should the rest of the world have intervened in Sudan or Rwanda, for example? Though in a few cases America would choose to, rightly or wrongly. And in the case of Iraq, Bush 41 didn’t mince words in criticizing Bush 43, the son.

“But it’s not Cheney’s fault, it’s the president’s fault . . . [H]ow needlessly harsh Bush 41 thought the rhetoric was, including Bush 43’s characterization in 2002 of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an ‘axis of evil.’ And for that tone Bush 41 largely blames Dick Cheney, defense secretary during his own administration and a man Bush 41 believed had grown more hawkish over time, perhaps because of the influence of his wife, Lynne, who, Bush 41 speculates, is ‘a lot of the éminence grise here — iron-ass, tough as nails, driving.’ Cheney ‘had his own empire there and marched to his own drummer,’ Bush says. ‘The big mistake that was made was letting Cheney bring in kind of his own state department. I think they overdid that.’ [Jon Meacham’s ‘Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,’ Jim Kelly, Sunday Book Review, The New York Times, 9th Nov 2015]

And not surprisingly there is growing sensitivity among donor nations to recognize the ‘mandatories’ of ‘absorptive capacity’ if development efforts in client-countries are to succeed. And which we Filipinos have yet to internalize? It explains our inability to attract FDI to the levels enjoyed by neighbors. That it takes two to tango. Still, the onus of development is on us, like we tell our kids. [It's because of absorptive capacity that the writer chose to work with one client in Bulgaria but not the other. He spent a month with each one to make the determination. And the rest as they say is history.]

For example, we have had Mindanao for the longest time and we considered efforts especially brokered by foreigners as undermining our sovereignty – despite warring among ourselves. And Mindanao is not all about a religious war although being a Catholic country, we like to highlight their being Muslims and a minority and their desire for autonomy as a risk. That we want peace but not at the risk of dismembering the country. Implicitly we are condoning war?

Is it surprising when we have condoned other undesirable things? Let’s look at Romania again if it’s hard to examine our own failings. “The disaster epitomized many of the features that have held the country back: irresponsibility . . . incompetence . . . and apparent corruption . . . In the aftermath of the fire, Romanians took to the streets in some of the biggest protests since the collapse of communism. Under the slogan Coruptia Ucide (Corruption kills) they demanded resignations and prosecutions, as well as a cut in the number of lawmakers; new anti-corruption laws; and higher pay for officials to reduce the temptation to accept bribes. A banner in University Square, a hotspot of the 1989 revolution, read: ‘In 1989 we fought for liberty, today we fight for justice.’” [The Economist, op. cit.]

Perfection is not of this world yet people and nations can lift themselves up from misery. Even if Lucifer, once in a perfect state, was corrupted by self-generated pride (and which we may likewise see in powerful nations) it doesn’t translate to doom. 

The world is a much better place today – but not to Juan de la Cruz?  “Behind pomp of APEC summit, crushing poverty endures,” Jim Gomez, Associated Press, philstar.com, 20th Nov 2015. “While poverty remains in the region, free trade policies that APEC has advocated since its 1989 founding have helped about half a billion people rise from poverty to the middle class, said Alan Bollard, executive director of APEC's Singapore-based secretariat. . . But at the same time, Malaysia, the Philippines and China have had big increases in inequality.”

What makes us stand out amongst the 3 countries is we’re the least competitive. There is no free lunch. And it’s understandable if we don’t see the world a better place given abject poverty has remained with us – with an internal war to boot. But it is in our hands! And we don’t have to choose misery.

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